Stand and deliver – the return of terraces

UNLESS something dramatic happens, it does look as though football in Britain will soon welcome back terracing of some sort at the highest level of the game. For a generation of fans, terracing has never really been an option, unless they watched lower league or non-league football. As an example, my youngest son, aged 26, seeing the swaying hordes behind the goals in a 1970s game on TV, couldn’t believe the authorities took such huge risks in cramming people on concrete steps with just a few barriers in place. We have, to our cost, learned.

That’s not to say that standing at matches isn’t commonplace, for fans seem to reject their seats for the entire 90 minutes at some grounds, ignoring any appeal to sit down and threats of ejection. In most cases, the stewards have given up and allow it to continue. But this tells us there is a segment of the average football crowd that really does want to stand up.

In theory, the reintroduction of standing on an official basis should reduce ticket prices, although it is unlikely to change much as there will be costs involved in recalibrating stadium seating plans. In the longer run, one can only hope clubs try and introduce a more acceptable pricing structure.

This is important because the majority of people who will warm to the return of terraces will be the younger members of the footballing community. Like many fans, I graduated from crumbling terraces and moved into the stands when I was no longer prepared to tolerate the hustle and bustle, and when I could afford the admission. Today, I might occasionally stand at my local club and I do enjoy the age-old ritual of leaning against a rusting barrier, craning my neck here and there to catch a glimpse of the action. 

It’s clear the terracing is where the real fermentation of the football spirit takes place. You make more noise if you stand up and being seated makes people more reserved. If you want further proof of that, just consider a music gig where artists often encourage the crowd to get out of their seat. 

We should not be too surprised that since we went all-seater, crowd noise has declined enormously. The other factor is to do with demographics – the football audience has become older and that’s because many younger folk cannot afford the tickets. Quite simply, 60-somethings don’t generally chant and sing songs at football matches. If you want a feral, passionate vibe at a game, make it more user-friendly for youngsters.

A few years back, I attended the Zurich derby, FC Zurich v Grasshopper. It was a Friday night, FIFA was in meltdown over the other side of town with people being escorted out of hotels with sheets on their heads to preserve anonymity and Zurich was quite sleepy. Inside the ground, one end of the stadium was heaving, banners, flares and loads of singing. The crowd was essentially young and standing. Meanwhile, in the seating area, you could hear a pin drop. This was Zurich, a conservative, well-heeled city and here we were, looking at one of the most passionate crowds I had ever witnessed. Standing and liberated.

Will we feel comfortable using terracing again? With covid-19 in its post-vaccination stage, how will we react to being shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of people in a confined area? From the spectator’s point of view, what is more hygienic – sitting closely together or standing side-by-side? There’s an argument there’s little difference, but at the same time, there’s a strong case to suggest that being on a terrace (not the sardine-like experience that epitomised swaying crowds of the 1960s and early 1970s) gives more scope for movement. In theory you can give yourself as much room as you want if the crowd capacity is kept to a modest level. In a seat, you have very little control, other than to get up and leave.

Some people long for the days when a sea of humanity would provide the soundtrack of matchday. Today, so many crowds lack humour, volume and passion – like Britain’s political landscape, there are no rivals or opponents these days, just “enemies”, so often vitriol is the order of the day. In the past, giant “ends” like the Kop and the Holte would be admired and envied, not necessarily the construction that housed them, but the size, sound and support that came from them. 

I believe a carefully-controlled terrace, in terms of numbers, could provide a solution for football spectating in the post-virus climate. It won’t be to everyone’s taste – ultimately, it may not be to mine – but it would be sheer stupidity to restart football and not allow people the room to breathe their own air as we come to terms with a more vulnerable world. I’m heading to Cambridge United to try their terrace out. OK, it’s not the yellow wall of Dortmund or the old Stretford End, but it will be a new experience. I might not want to stand up at every game, but I would probably like the option.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine

Safe-distance football terracing – a post-virus solution?

JUST before the UK government locked down the nation and brought football to a close, I visited Salford City and indulged in something of a rare experience – standing on the terraces at a Football League game.

Like many fans, I graduated from the crumbling terraces at my favourite club, Chelsea, and invested increasingly greater sums of money in seated accommodation down the years. By the time most big clubs had gone all-seater, I was happy to be sitting down for 90 minutes.

A couple of dodgy knees later, the prospect of standing for an entire game doesn’t appeal to me, although I have to say, I actually enjoy the age-old ritual of leaning against a rusting barrier, craning my neck here and there to catch a glimpse of the action. But not every week.

At Salford, I was caught in the middle of a skirmish, quite literally, as a handful of Bradford City fans got involved in a turf war with the home supporters. Strangely, I felt a rush of adrenalin! It took me back to days as a Chelsea away fan in the old second division, games of cat and mouse with the likes of Bristol City, Cardiff City and, the most foolhardy trip I ever embarked on, Millwall, September 4, 1976.

I was no hooligan, far from it, but occasionally, my afternoon out was disrupted by being too close to those that enjoyed the art of “sticking the boot in.” I will never forget the emotions that swept over me when I alighted at New Cross station that lunchtime, a mixture of fear and indecision – should I get back on the train and return to London Bridge, or seek safety in numbers? I chose the latter and came through unscathed, but by the time I got back to Fenchurch Street, my legs were like jelly and I vowed “never again”.

From 1977, I sought refuge in the “new” East Stand at Stamford Bridge, a more sanitised environment where most people sat in near silence. Sometimes, I looked longingly at the Shed End terracing or even the top of the North Stand end which I also used to frequent. But I was still a teenager.

Hypocrisy

It’s clear the terracing is where the real fermentation of the football spirit takes place. You make more noise if you stand up and somehow, being seated makes people more sedate while standing allows you to get “lost in the melee” which provides more anonymity. We should not be too surprised that since all-seater stadiums were introduced, the decibel level has declined at English football matches. They seem to have been more successful at grounds around Europe at retaining some of the old vibe.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves that people adhere to the rules, though. Behind many goalmouths you can see the crowd is standing up for the best part of 90 minutes, refusing to be restricted in movement, although there’s precious little room in most stands. There’s so much hypocrisy on the part of clubs, stewards and indeed, the police when it comes to controlling this. For example, the home fans can stand for the entire game, but when the away fans do likewise, the stewards try to enforce a sit-down, especially if the away team is winning.

This does imply there is a section of the crowd that really craves the atmosphere of the terrace. So why not introduce a limited terrace area that enables those that want the experience can enjoy it?

At present, there are a number of hurdles for the introduction of terracing, even if it is only the modern “safe-standing” approach. The Coronavirus, and the blow to public confidence and sensibilities, could shape any plans clubs have, albeit temporarily.

The virus has shown that despite all the technology in the world and scientific developments that would have been way beyond expectations 50 years ago, an unseen disease can stop the most sophisticated societies in their tracks. Everything we took for granted is now being questioned – the ability to socialise, personal hygiene, food supplies, family, infrastructure and globalisation.

Where does that leave football? It’s a game that relies on the mass gathering of spectators to provide finance, atmosphere and substance. Modern football is also an intensely globalised industry. A multinational squad can, in such circumstances, be a hotbed of contagion if the players all go home for the holidays.

Breathe

From the spectator’s point of view, what is more hygienic – sitting closely together or standing side-by-side? There’s an argument there’s little difference, but at the same time, there’s a strong case to suggest that being on a terrace (not the sardine-like experience that epitomised swaying crowds of the 1960s and early 1970s) gives more scope for movement. In theory you can give yourself as much room as you want if the crowd capacity is kept to a modest level. In a seat, you have very little control, other than to get up and leave.

On the other hand, crowd control is made a little more challenging on the terraces, as I witnessed at Salford, where the high-vis staff were ill-equipped to deal with the trouble, even though it was a minor incident.

Some people long for the days when a sea of humanity would provide the soundtrack of matchday. Today, so many crowds are lacking in humour, volume and passion. In the past, giant “ends” like the Kop and the Holte would be admired and envied, not the construction that housed them, but the size, sound and support that came from them. As for seated stands, it is invariably the structure that is the point of reference, not the sheer weight of numbers.

I believe that a carefully controlled terrace, in terms of numbers, could provide a solution for football spectating in the post-virus climate. It won’t be to everyone’s taste – it may not be to mine – but it would be sheer stupidity to restart football and not allow people the room to breathe their own air as we come to terms with a more vulnerable world. Over to you, scientists and doctors.

 

@GameofthePeople